In an effort to simplify terms, I’m going to describe persons of religious affiliation as “Rafters” and persons of scientific/materialist affiliation as “Plancks.” Recognizing there is a broad spectrum of thought in both of these categories, I’m largely hoping to address certain fundamentalist, dogmatic positions that confound meaningful interaction between these two great pillars of human endeavor. These are the hardened geometries of thought that each side seems reluctant to soften in meaningful dialogue.
I want to start by describing what I mean by fundamentalist and dogmatic, and how I think these terms might apply to each of these groups. A fundamentalist, dogmatic approach is one which precludes certain positions or possibilities from being considered on the basis of preconceived notions, and which may, in the extreme, function simply through denial. In the most general sense, the Rafters are behaving in a fundamentalist, dogmatic way when they ignore clear evidence in the world around them that differs from a particular sacred text. The Plancks are behaving in a fundamentalist, dogmatic way when they dismiss ideas and experiences that appear to lie outside of the norms they have established for what the universe can be.
On the Rafters’ side of the house, I think there is simply too much reluctance to look beyond a particular text when pursuing spiritual insights and knowledge. There is also the mistaken impression that we cannot make new discoveries regarding the nature of our reality, including our understanding of God. I think, for instance, that what is termed revelation is ongoing and never-ending. It is simply part of life. While I can appreciate that opening up the spectrum of inputs that merit consideration brings with it a tremendous foreboding, I think such an approach is necessary. It is not only intellectually honest, but of critical importance if one is to truly relate to other people who see the world differently. If the truth is true, there need be no fear of losing it. And if the truth is true, it should be true independent of any particular book or dogma.
There is a way to approach this sort of sea change gently I think. I wouldn’t advocate a sudden turning of one’s back on all that one has known and valued, but a careful exploration of those beliefs and values that resonate most clearly with the compass of the human heart. My plan is to return to this issue in a future discussion because of how important it is. In the meanwhile I want to acknowledge that I appreciate the profound psychological difficulties associated with facing what appears to be the loss of meaning, of certainty, and of personal orientation.
Turning to the Plancks, they have made declarations about the fundamental nature of the universe that are, for me, equally as untenable as the idea this planet was created a few thousand years ago by a judgmental, bearded God who lives in the clouds. The Plancks have presumed to know the type of reality our reality ought to be, and insist that what mysteries remain are but the particulars of working these notions out. The claim on which I feel there’s overreaching is this: the universe is not a functional whole. It’s a valid and perhaps necessary convention for doing science to assume that all the properties of phenomena are local, and that the universe possesses no faculties, properties or dimensions but the ones before us, but I’m not convinced this idea has any real claim to universal validity. It is a convention and should be acknowledged as such.
Related ideas, to make my concerns clearer, are that the universe has no interiority; that a deep relatedness of all phenomena does not exist; that a timeless, dimensionless field of being does not exist; and that only human experiences which are externally replicable provide insight into reality. Let me try and reduce this down somehow, as it is admittedly a nebulous set of postulates. I would sum this up by saying the assertion by the Plancks that the universe cannot possibly be the unified, demonstrable form of a dimensionless, living wholeness is an arbitrary one.
But for a difficulty as uncomfortable in its own right as asking a Rafter to lift his eyes from a particular text, there is no reason this choice of convention by the Plancks should not be acknowledged for the assertion that it is. Asking if the universe could be considered as one whole body—one whole living structure—does not require that the tasks of science be abandoned. It does not put QED into jeopardy, or the theory of evolution. It doesn’t suggest that nature no longer obeys natural laws, or unfold according to discernible principles. It merely asks why it is necessary to divorce those understandings from the possibility that they are simply “how wholeness moves” in this world.
Stepping back again, if you strip the fundamentalism and dogma from these Rafters and Plancks, what remains?
I think for the Rafters, the acknowledgment that existence is a unified wholeness about which we are still learning requires that certain ideas be set aside. These ideas include the notion that one group or population of people is somehow entitled to special divine rights or privileges; the notion that any particular religion is complete and superior to another, rather than being a stage of unfolding understanding of this universe and our place within it; and the notion that to be good and to be meaningful we must adhere to certain dogmatic views and behaviors. These ideas not only divide us, they are incoherent with the possibility that all of existence is unified and inseparable. What remains is the possibility that the sort of wholeness that ultimately exists, which we often call “God”, could be loving. What remains is the possibility that we are each intimately connected to the life of the universe, to the timeless and dimensionless heart of being, and that through this connection we may be inspired, guided, and supported.
Where we find it difficult to square our ideals of a loving universe with the factual realities of this planet, we have opportunities to ask new questions. If it seems implausible that the universe could be a fundamental expression of love while people on earth yet suffer, then maybe our ideas about what “God” is, what this world is, and who we are, have been incomplete. If it seems obvious that praying for a particular outcome does not always work as we expect it should, then maybe our expectations for prayer and our understanding of all the factors involved, both within and without, have been misplaced. Maybe there is more to the picture of life in this universe than we know. I personally think this is so. I personally think what is true is as great and beautiful as any eventuality the Rafters have taught us to expect, and I don’t think any of the work the Plancks are doing undermines this.
What remains for the Plancks is the possibility that we can learn ever more about the nature of order in this universe. I’ve never been absolutely clear on what the Plancks stand to lose if the idea of a whole, living universe with a backbone of timeless connectivity were accepted. I suspect the answer is something along the lines of causality, or a perceived threat to the very idea on which science rests, which is that all we observe may be explained in terms of fixed natural laws. If the universe is truly alive, it may do something unexpected, and how can we do science on that basis? Well, there is certainly no reason to stop in the short-term. We’ll know the difficulties when we see them, and the point at which we confront the unknown need not be taken as the point at which we presume everything beyond is magical and arbitrary. There is nothing to suggest a universe with the property of wholeness is a puerile one.
I simply see the need to accept that our knowledge is incomplete, and that it is possible some individuals and cultures could have access to knowledge and types of experience that seem foreign to another’s notion of what reality is and how it works. It is possible that the types of questions and research the Plancks presently undertake will evolve into unforeseen domains as more is learned. It may even be true that the idea of the universe as a unified, whole and living architecture—a life of which all of its contents equally partake—could lead to interesting, testable ideas. A story for another day perhaps. The point is that I see no arbitrary reason for the Plancks to stop investigating what interests them.
What remains when we are honest about what conclusions have truly been earned, is a vast and beautiful territory where many, many human beings could collaborate in novel ways, without the arbitrary limitations on interaction the most polarized positions of the Plancks and Rafters tend to demand. It pains me that we struggle so to recognize the possibilities alive in one another’s positions, and I hope to see the day in which thought leaders on both sides of this artificial divide make the effort to construct the most complete picture of reality of which we are capable. I am convinced it will contain coherent, evolving ideas about what it means to exist in a loving universe, alongside of equally coherent, evolving ideas of how this loving universe continually comes into being and manages its accounts of energy, material and information.